March 18 was the birthday of burlesque performer and producer Mollie Williams (Mollie Hersh, 1884-1854).
Williams was the daughter of German-Jewish immigrants, and raised in New York, where she was performing at Miner’s Bowery Theatre as early as 1905. Within two years, her skill as a singer, dancer, and comedienne, as well as her conspicuous beauty got her work on the Eastern Burlesque Wheel, where her imitation of Anna Held made her a hit. The bare shoulders in this photo of the time (below) were the height of scandalousness, easily as risque as posing completely nude would remain for most of the 20th century, which might partially explain why Williams was to remain in burlesque throughout her career, never translating her fame to the legit stage, vaudeville or film (unlike, say, Fanny Brice, another burlesque veteran, but had never been prized as a beauty). One of her specialties was something called the “Dance L’Enticement”.
In 1912 burlesque mogul Max Spiegel underwrote her in her own traveling revue, which toured the Eastern and Columbia wheels for years as The Mollie Williams Show, with a full chorus, specialty acts and a troupe of players. She wrote her own sketches, playlets and numbers, and was ahead of her time in harnessing them to political causes. For example, she used her ragtime postal delivery number to promote better pay for mailmen, and she campaigned for Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Her company employed the top talent on the wheel; for years her principal male comedian was Harry Bowen. The latest references to her in performance I have seen to date are from circa 1926, when she was in her early ’40s.
For more on show business history, including burlesque, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.
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